UNSC Watch: Now in Security Council, India Gets a Taste of Polarised Division in an Open Debate

A weekly analysis on UN Security Council proceedings as India begins its two-year tenure at the body.

New Delhi: Even as UN security council members prepare for a debate this week on combatting terrorism, the polarisation between the permanent members remains stark as evident from the tense discussion on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The calendar for the security council opened with a closed meeting to consider the programme of work for the next month. The debate on Syria – the first open discussion of the UNSC in 2021 – showcased the extreme positions among the P-5, if a reminder was even needed.

It was also the first open debate attended by the newly-inducted non-permanent members – India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and Norway. They are replacing five other countries – Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa – whose term had ended on December 31, 2020.

While this is India’s eight stint as a non-permanent member, the working methods of the council have changed drastically since the last time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with most meetings taking place through video and votes signed in through e-mail.

The open videoconference on January 5 began with the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu, reiterating the findings of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which said that the international community cannot yet have confidence that Syria’s chemical weapons programme had been destroyed.

In 2013, the UNSC had passed a resolution calling for full destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, which required a monthly briefing on its implementation. The lines are drawn sharply between the US and Europe versus Russia and China – with the OPCW’s credibility being put on the mat by opposing factions.

Among the new entrants, Norway and Ireland expressed their confidence in OPCW. Mexico, which is going to assume the presidency of the next Conference of State Parties of OPCW, asserted confidence in the “professionalism” of the UN body but called on nations not to let Syria’s chemical weapons issue polarise proceedings in UN.

Also read: India to Chair UNSC’s Taliban and Libya Sanctions Committees, Panel on Counter-Terrorism

Kenya described Syria as a “victim and a symbol of a global order under immense strain from unilateralism, power politics and wars without limit”.

In its statement, India “appreciated the commitment” of OPCW technical secretariat. At the same time, it called for “continued engagement” between Syria and OPCW and that concerns had to addressed by consultation between all “concerned parties. “In our view, the politicisation of the issue is neither helpful nor productive”.

While Syria has always been at the centre of a geopolitical tug of war, OPCW’s role has become even more complicated after it became the battleground on blame game over the alleged poisoning of a former Russian double agent by a nerve agent in 2018.

India had preferred to keep strictly on the sidelines of the issue, but had also not been in favour of expanding the powers of the UN global chemical weapons watchdog.

Last week’s other open meeting was a debate on international peace and security challenges of maintaining peace and security in a fragile context, especially in Africa. As the Security Council president in January, Tunisia had the right to propose signature debates on themes aligned to its foreign policy priorities.

The United Nations Headquarters. Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri /File

Usually, these events are chaired by the top leadership from the country holding the presidency. The Tunisian president, Kaïs Saïed, opened the virtual debate on January 6. From India, foreign secretary Harsh Shringla joined the discussions remotely.

The second open debate, proposed by Tunisia, will be on Tuesday (January 12) on international cooperation in combatting terrorism. It will mark 20 years of the adoption of UNSC resolution 1373, which was passed after 9/11 terror attacks.

Tunisia is also the chair of the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), which had been created under this resolution. India is scheduled to chair this UNSC panel in 2022.

Next week, the other meetings on the Council’s agenda next week are briefings from the UN offices in West Africa and Central Asia, UN special envoy to Yemen and peacekeeping missions to Mali and Cyprus.

One of the announcements made in the first week of January was to fill in the vacancies in the security council’s subsidiary organisations due to the annual turnover among non-permanent members.

Also read: Virtual Meets, a China Problem, Domestic Issues: 2020’s Highlight Reel for Indian Diplomacy

India will chair two committees that overlook the implementation of resolutions on sanctions related to Afghanistan and Libya.

Among its varied mandate, the Taliban sanctions committee has the right to designate and delist individuals and entities to be targeted by a sanction regime made up of asset freeze and travel ban.

India’s chairing of the Taliban sanctions committee takes place at a crucial time when the intra-Afghan peace talks between the Afghanistan government and Kabul have resumed in Doha.

As chair of the committee, India will have an increased profile in the peace talks, but diplomatic sources also noted that strict guidelines govern the panel’s conduct. These rules do not allow the chair to have much leeway to take any unilateral steps, since all decisions are taken on a consensual basis.

While non-permanent members can be chairs of the UNSC committees, permanent members continue to have a more dominant role, as they account for the majority of the ‘penholders’. This term is given to a country who takes leadership in drafting decisions and coordinating negotiations on a certain geographical situation or thematic subject.

The ‘penholdership’ system of burden-sharing evolved as the agenda of the council expanded exponentially over the last two decade. However, it is an informal system, so there is no official document to show which country is the ‘penholder’ for which subject. However, the current penholder for a topic is usually guessed when a particular country takes the lead in drafting proposals.

Among themselves, the US, United Kingdom and France hold the ‘penholder’ for most of the critical issues active on the council’s agenda. Russia and China have preferred to work behind the scenes. However, Russia and the US are ‘co-penholders’ for the peacekeeping mission in the Golan heights. The argument was that the two countries with the most polarised position should be first talking to sort out kinks before bringing draft proposals to the council.

Also read: India Welcomes Reconciliation, Rapprochement Among Countries in Gulf Region

In specific topics, the ‘penholder’ has a more influential role than the committee chairman on the subject. For example, as chairman of the Taliban sanctions committee, India would have inputs on issues related to Afghanistan. Still, the lead on outcomes would be taken by the ‘co-penholder’ for this country, Estonia and Norway.